An Ode to Farming
Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How sweetly it does call,
To cultivate the earth with care,
And nourish it for all.
The soil, rich and fertile,
Teeming with life and growth,
With seeds that sprout and flourish,
As if the land itself does boast.
No chemicals, no pesticides,
No harm to the land or bee,
But only love and stewardship,
To grow our crops so free.
From seed to sprout to harvest,
The cycle of life we see,
As we honor the earth’s bounty,
And embrace her majesty.
For every plant we nurture,
Every seed we sow with pride,
Brings us closer to nature’s rhythm,
And to the land we do abide.
Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How it fills our hearts with song,
As we work in harmony with nature,
And dance with her all day long.
This is what popped up in seconds after I inserted the prompt “write a poem about organic farming in the style of Walt Whitman” on OpenAI. Kind of crazy right? Now I’m no poet and I haven’t read much poetry since high school, so I can’t speak to the merits of what the bot created. But it seems to me that this can easily be mistaken for something a talented person wrote.
Artificial intelligence has made remarkable strides since I was a child. I remember when former world chess champion Gary Kasparov defeated IBM’s Deep Blue in 1996. Today however no human chess player can even come close to defeating a robot. In fact the best chess players in the world use artificial intelligence to train. If they didn’t they simply wouldn’t be competitive.
Even large scale agriculture has not escaped the conveniences that artificial intelligence offers. Drones fly over large crop fields gathering data on soil moisture levels, fertilizer levels, and sunlight and use that data to quite accurately predict yields even before planting; they can also monitor plant health to predict pest infestations before they occur (pest infestations are directly related to plant health which is related to soil health); and these drones can even find irrigation leaks. This is only scratching the surface. AI has revolutionized conventional agriculture, and it’s only going to make more of an impact as time goes on. It’ll result in less sprays, healthier plants, higher yields, and probably lower prices.
But it’s still conventional agriculture.
“Progress” has the tendency of solidifying problematic things in good ways: modern medicine often fights the symptoms of a poor diet; the labor movements of the 19th century fought the symptoms of a corporatist system; and AI ameliorates some of the excesses of conventional agriculture. These are all good developments no doubt, but they allow for the perseverance of structures that are inherently problematic. I think that much of the history of the modern world can be explained via the coalescing of the “good” and the “problematic” in contradictory, reinforcing ways.
When former Go (a game popular in east Asia–a lot more complex than chess I think) champion Lee Se-Dol was defeated by Google’s AlphaGo in 2016, he retired and never played the game again. “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated,” he said.
How we live in the world in the face of contradictory progress need not be as grim as Se-Dol’s defeatism. I like Martin Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness:” we are thrown into the world beyond our control with all of its present-day frustrations, demands, sufferings, and I would add contradictions that emerge from progress. According to Heidegger this “thrownness” ironically leaves an opening for individual freedom. While a perfect utopia without this progress/contradiction dynamic will never exist on a societal level, I do think that we have the freedom to attempt to reach such a state within our own individual lives. It’s as if our lives can be thought of as a calculus limit function: they approach infinity but never actually reach it.
I’m not sure what this looks like in practice. This is all way too theoretical. Maybe eating local is a good place to start?
Hawaiian Loaf Special!
The special bread this Thursday and Saturday is the Hawaiian loaf: Hawaiian rolls are derivative of Portuguese Sweet Breads, using pineapple juice as a major part of the sweetener. Soft and semi-sweet.
Those hand pies from Pie Bird Farm have been very popular. There will be savory hand pies this week. Arriving on Thursday: egg, achar, and cheese hand pies and mushroom, sesame and cheddar hand pies, along with the sweet ones too.
It’s going to be 70 degrees on Thursday. That’s weird for us. But it’s even weirder for peach and plum trees. Consistent warm weather makes fruit trees believe that it’s spring, so they start budding or even flowering way too early. Then when the temperature plumets shortly after, it does some serious damage to the delicate young buds. And if there are flowers, those flowers die before pollination can occur. That means no peaches or plums. It’s also the main reason why local apricots are hard to come by. Apricots are early bloomers in general. They’re not ideal for our area, but once every few years we get lucky.
On Sunday Nathan from Sharrah Orchard made a delivery of apples. We talked about all this. His peaches are showing signs that they’re going to start budding. In fact fruit trees have already started budding at orchards in Maryland. He seemed oddly calm. “Not much I can do about it,” he told me.
When I had a farm I’d get anxious about things I couldn’t control: a forecast of rain during a farmers market; no rainfall when the crops desperately needed it; and the darn groundhog outsmarting me at every turn…all sources of much stress for me. I wanted the backyard farming experiment to be successful, after all, and these factors beyond my control often got in the way. So Nathan’s calm attitude toward the possibility that his entire crop could fail this year struck me enough to share it with you (without concluding it with a wise cliché anecdote).
Food Tasting This Thursday
Thursday, February 16th, 11am-1pm
Please join us at the store this Thursday from 11:00-1:00 for in-store tasting! Jen from Pie Bird Farm will be sampling pies, Colleen from Many Hands Coffee will be sampling and selling coffee, and Kristin from Mother Butter will be sampling her seed butter.
Chocolate Cherry Bread
This week’s special bread is Ursa Bakery’s Chocolate Cherry Bread. Chocolate chips, cocoa powder, local honey, dried cherries, and nocino from locally foraged walnuts are blended into sourdough for a semisweet treat.
These breads will be available on Thursday and Saturday, so hurry and get yours while supplies last!
We are entering probably the worst time of year for produce. By early February farmers have mostly sold out of a lot of their storage crops. Things like garlic, squash, and even potatoes are now hard to come by. I haven’t eaten garlic for a month, and I haven’t eaten a fresh tomato since October. It’s one of the apparent downsides of eating locally.
But really the more I think about it the less of a downside it becomes. When eating seasonally and locally I experience a special level of excitement for each fruit and vegetable. Strawberries simply aren’t that special when they’re available all year. But restrict them to 2-4 weeks in June and suddenly a strawberry becomes special and “enchanting.” I have never seen children so excited as when they’d run into the strawberry patch on a farm that I was working at to pick their own. There’s something special about that.
I used the word “enchanting” above because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of “disenchantment,” a term that sociologist Max Weber used to describe the character of a modernized, bureaucratic, and secularized West. According to Weber, whereas modern society places higher value on scientific rationale, “the world was a great enchanted garden” in pre-modern society (I think these two often coexist and I don’t really buy Weber’s demarcation-but I’m still going with this). Of course industrialized agriculture is a product of the modern world, so I think by following Weber’s logic it makes sense to say that there may be some level of disenchantment associated with nonlocal food. Conventional strawberries simply don’t cause the level of joy and excitement that we see with a local strawberry in June that’s red all the way through.
Every April I like to go to West Fairmount Park to see the cherry blossoms. They’re in bloom for two weeks at best. In Japan the viewing of the cherry blossoms is symbolic of the Buddhist idea of “wabi-sabi,” which finds beauty in transience. What makes the blossoms so memorable is the very fact that it felt like they ended too soon.
While I don’t think another month of strawberry season would hurt, I think these are both interesting ideas worth thinking about within the context of local food. It’s nice that there is one type of excitement followed by another: radishes, then asparagus, then strawberries, then tomatoes, then peaches, then apples, etc…until February hits. Then the wheel starts turning anew in late March.
I took this picture at the Shofuso Japanese House in Fairmount Park last April. Pretty.
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Save The Dates
Two Great Events In February!
Save the dates:
Wednesday the 15th 7:00-9:00PM Talk and potluck
Thursday the 16th 11:00-1:00 Samplings from vendors
A couple dates to save: on Wednesday February 15th 7:00-9ish PM I’ll be giving a talk at the shop for the Philadelphia chapter meeting of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods (things like raw milk, butter, pastured meats, organs, broths, fermented foods, whole grain sourdough breads, etc) to the American diet through education, research, and activism.
I’m not a nutritionist so I won’t be talking about health and nutrition. Rather, I’ll be talking about the agricultural, environmental, and economic impacts of eating this way. If you have read some of the longer emails I’ve written, you may have already heard a lot of what I’ll talk about. Bring your own chair. It’ll be a potluck, so bring some food too if you’d like, but it’s not required. It should be fun and a great way to meet new people. We’re going to cap it at 30 people, so please RSVP by following this link. My friend River, the Philly chapter head, will confirm your reservation.
The day after on the 16th 11:00-1:00 Jen from Pie Bird Farm and Kristin from Mother Butter will be at the shop giving samples of pie and seed butter, respectively.
Also I’m taking preorders for pie for next week (there won’t be any for purchase this week). Just respond to this email with your order. The offerings and prices are in the list section below. If you had one last week, let me know how you liked it!
A really special prepared food from John at Vesta Kitchen this week: rabbit stew! The rabbit is pastured and fed freshly harvested greens, twigs, leaves and organic non soy/corn pellets. They’re coming from Jordan at Neigbours Farmstead in Phoenixville. I’ll be carrying whole rabbit from him starting in May (that’s a long time from now so I don’t know why I even mentioned it. But really it’s just a hop, skip, and jump away).
The special bread this week is the Schwarzbrot: it’s all wholegrain – half wheat, half rye. It has TONS of toasted seeds and honey. It’s a dense sourdough pan loaf and it’s mixed by hand. It’s one of the most popular breads Claire bakes.
Finally, Claire’s farmers market at East Falls this Saturday got cancelled since it’s going to be too cold, so she’s not baking on Saturday. I won’t have fresh bread on Saturday this week. However, I’m going to order a lot extra for Thursday and freeze whatever doesn’t sell. So there should be plenty of frozen bread on Saturday. This bread freezes really well and the quality holds up. You can either leave it on the counter or put it in a paper bag and in the oven at 350 for 20-25 minutes to defrost.
Relatively uninteresting, straight to business email this week. Lots to do today. See you around!
Local Food Accessibility
Last year around this time I wrote some reflections on 2021. You can check it out here. It was comical musings on whether or not I should open a second location. I guess I did that. But I cheated because the first location closed, so we’re back to square one. It’s way too soon to start thinking about a new second location, but it is time to start thinking about some other things for 2023. The immediate goals are to start offering more products: prepared foods with local ingredients are coming next week (more on that next newsletter); maybe sustainable paper products; maybe nuts/seeds/grains from good sources if those exist. Also I want to do more fun events like the grand opening and some fun collaborations with other small businesses around town. Finally a new website is coming since the current one is atrociously outdated.
And then there are some bigger things that I’m starting to think about in more detail. What about a Costco style model where there is a membership fee and all the items are sold at cost? Would that be financially sustainable? It might be. It might also destroy the business. It addresses something that has been on my mind for a decade: how can local, organic food, without the economies of scale of artificially low-priced conventional food, be not just more but a lot more financially accessible. A membership structure I think is the only potentially feasible way to do it. I might go in this direction. I might not. But I’ve started to analyze it on spreadsheets. Which is hard. Because I can’t stand being on the computer for very long.
A significant decrease in food prices under a membership structure also brings about another interesting topic: the percentage of household income that was spent on food over 100 years ago versus now. Take a look at the chart all the way below.
In 1900 the average percentage of household income spent on food was significantly higher than it is today. Back then food cost more simply because there were many more local farms (6-7 million farms for a population of 75 million compared to around 1 million farms for a population of 330 million today) that did not have the production efficiencies and low labor costs of the large industrial farms today. With the industrialization and consolidation of the food industry and widespread urbanization in the later half of the 20th century food prices went down considerably. The same sort of thing happened with clothing. Entertainment, eating out, healthcare, automobiles, travel, and especially housing and higher education make up the bulk of household spending today to meet the demands and pleasures of a modern lifestyle.
A marketing firm that I’m working with, Milk Street Marketing (cool people-check them out if you need help with your business), asked me when we first met who my competitors are. I gave them a long winded, highly ideological, disconnected-from-reality, newsletter-esc spiel (amazing that they still took me on as a client) about how my competitors are not places like Whole Foods, Giant, and Acme. They are rather places like movie theaters, restaurants, travel agencies and airlines, universities, and hospitals and healthcare providers (this was all kind of a joke of course but not really?) Pretty much anything that gets in the way of increasing the percentage of household spending of food back to 1900 levels.
Well, for those for whom this food is less financially assessable, theaters etc are not by my choice but by default indeed competitors if I maintain the current business structure of buying local foods and marking them up by some percentage. Just to use the logical fallacy of appealing to extremes for fun, this would in its extreme form involve trying to unravel a hundred years of economic growth, urbanization, and modern conveniences so that everyone just spends most of their income on food (or supplies to grow food) and not much else. Of course that’s ridiculous. Fun to think about in a Little House on the Prairie sort of way, but let’s not go down that route (unless you wanna?) If however the business structure changes to something like Costco’s model, well, then, looks like places like Whole Foods, Acme, and Giant could actually be real competitors since the prices would be pretty close.
I want local, organic food to be affordable to all. It’s a challenge that could take a long time to figure out. Politicians are not talking about it in any feasible way. We gotta do it ourselves. I hope to have a better answer in 2023.
My Trip To Germany
I just got back home from my trip to Deutschland. I’m doing my best to stay up till 10 so that the jetlag doesn’t ruin my sleep schedule. When I arrived in Germany I asked my friends to keep me up. Despite my protests, they successfully did so. Now I’m hoping that writing this email will keep me up.
I had a great time! Saw old friends. Walked around Christmas markets. Explored the old fairytale towns of Idstadt and Rüdesheim. And drank some Riesling by the the Rheine river in the Rheingau wine region.
The special bread this Thursday and Saturday by the way is the German style Schwartzbrot. This is pure coincidence. I ate some while there. The one from Ursa Bakery is better. Tut mir Leid, aber tut mir Leid nicht, Deutschland. (“Sorry but not sorry, Germany”)
Throughout Germany commemorative plaques called Stolpersteine (literally stumble stones) eternalize the lives of those lost during the Holocaust. They are laid into streets and sidewalks in front of the last known addresses of victims before their deportation and eventual murder. It is always chilling to stumble across these stones while walking to a bus station or going for an after dinner walk. Despite how much I’ve studied the history of this region, how a crime of such magnitude occurred will never cease to perplex and horrify me.
I visited Germany in 2006. It was a spur of the moment decision to go. They were doing quite well in the World Cup, which was actually taking place in Germany at the time. After they they played a remarkable game in the quarter final, I realized that this may be the only time in my life when I could see Germany win the World Cup in Germany. I booked a flight immediately after they won the quarter final. Annnd they promptly lost the semi-final a couple days after. I still had a great time. Germany won the 3rd place match while I was there. And I celebrated with all the Italians around town after Italy won the final against France. It was all somewhat disappointing for Germany, but the excitement that soccer brought out in people made the atmosphere lively, fun, and exciting.
The stark contrast between the 2006 trip and this trip reconfirmed for me that Germany has since the Holocaust become a bastion of human rights. Every single person I interacted with was protesting the World Cup, which is going on now. Not a single bar or restaurant had it televised. This is because Qatar, the country hosting the World Cup this year, imprisons anyone engaged in same-sex sexual activity. And if it is a Muslim, they face execution under Sharia law. While Germans have been the most outspoken against the Qatari government today, all of this is complicated by the fact that the German government just decided to buy gas from Qatar for the next 15 years as a way to reduce dependency on Russian gas. All very messy.
While the atrocities of the 20th century–the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Darfur, etc etc etc –are all in the history books (well, some history books), evil acts are not confined to history and they are not confined to distant places. They are widespread, under our very noses, twisted within the wild realm of geopolitics/international trade, and are often closer to home than is readily apparent. Even many of the foods stored in our kitchen pantries are produced via them.
Pictured below are stones down the street from my friend’s house in Wiesbaden.
On the left reads:
“Here lived Henrietta Leoni. Born 1870. Deported to Theresienstadt (this was a waystation to the extermination camps and also a “retirement settlement” for the elderly in German occupied Czechoslovakia) 1942. Died in Feb 21st. 1943.”
On the right reads:
“Here lived Heinrich Leoni. Born 1908. Deported to Lublin (a ghetto in Poland) 1942. Murdered August 4th 1942 in Majdanek (a concentration camp adjacent to Lublin).”
Come by to 2587 Huntingdon Pike, Huntingdon Valley 19006. Wednesday: 10:30-7:00
This week will be normal hours except that I’ll be closed on Sunday. And same thing next week.
The special bread this Thursday is a chocolate cranberry boule: Chocolate chips, cocoa powder, local honey, local cranberries and nocino (a walnut liquor, please be aware if you have a nut allergy) from locally foraged walnuts are blended into sourdough for a semisweet treat. This will only be available on Thursday since Ursa Bakery will be closed Saturday. On Saturday I’ll have bread from Spelt Berry Bakery instead.
This week billions of people across the world will be celebrating Hannukah and Christmas. It is amazing to me that out of what was considered by the most powerful people the world had seen to be an insignificant backwater emerged what over time became some of the most widely celebrated holidays in history. Not only was ancient Judea an “insignificant” region, but the people who inhabited it were persecuted for centuries: Hannukah, after all, is a commemoration of a Jewish revolt against the political and religious persecution committed by the Seleucid Empire; and the nativity story of Jesus revolves around King Herod’s massacre of infant males in and around Bethlehem. That such widespread religious traditions emerged from a mostly unknown territory from powerless people speaks to the pervasiveness of their ideas and the strength of the communities that were shaped by them. Granted these holidays are commercialized within the context of modernity, and genuine belief in their origins has dwindled over time, for the most part those of us who celebrate them still maintain the spirit of the season.
It is also striking to me that 90% of the population of ancient Judea was in some form directly involved with agriculture. Most of the local economy revolved around the production of wheat, barley, sheep milk/meat/wool, dates, figs, and grapes. It is no surprise, then, that much of the Old and New Testaments contain references to agriculture: the Jewish calendar is connected to agricultural cycles; Leviticus contains laws that are designed to improve soil health; and Jesus preached his parables within an agricultural framework. While the religious traditions that emerged out of ancient Near East have spread far and wide, the everyday agricultural lifestyle of those who inhabited it has mostly dwindled. How I would love to see its reemergence in some form. And besides, there is no need to go to the gym if your New Years resolution is to start farming 🙂
Happy holidays to you all!
Oh and thank you all for the kind Google reviews! I’ll leave the link here at the bottom on each email for those who haven’t gotten to it yet.
Over the course of the last several weeks I had the arduous and painstaking task of sampling dozens of ice cream flavors from all of the ice cream makers in our locale. Fortunately I emerged from these trials unscathed and with a new product to hit the shelves next week.
The thing about ice cream is that most creameries purchase an “ice cream base” from a large-scale industrial operation. These bases are composed of dehydrated milk powder (coming from bad dairy farms), all sorts of preservatives, chemicals, and artificial sweeteners. They then mix this base with their own flavorings. There are not very many creameries that make their own base (it requires a hard to get USDA certification), let alone very many creameries that use local, seasonal fruit and pastured dairy. There are a couple in our area that fit the bill, but one stood out: Owowcow Creamery. After experiencing the hospitality that I was shown there, learning about their philosophy, and tasting all of the flavors, I realized that this was the ice cream that I wanted to offer. They source their milk and cream directly from Painterland Farm, a local organic dairy farm owned and run by two sisters. The cows graze on open pasture. Most of the other ingredients are local. And those that are not, like the vanilla and chocolate, are coming from good sources. The decision was pretty easy, honestly, and I’m grateful for a friend who recommended them to me.
Anyway I’ll be carrying 10 flavors in pints and 2 of their ice cream pops. I’m not getting them this week. They’ll arrive next week. But I was just too excited to wait till then to tell you. They’ll only be available at Huntingdon Valley. Elkins Park folks: it’s worth the drive. I do hope that the self sacrifices that I made to fill my belly with copious amounts of ice cream over the course of the past couple weeks prove to be worthy.
How to put on socks
It’s interesting to me how each farm that I’ve worked at has a different feel. There are farms where the pace of work is quite relaxed. Work often slows down or even stops when a farmhand tells a joke or an interesting story. These farms are probably closest to how I romanticized farming before I ever started doing it. Oh how that all crumbled upon my first days at some of the more intense farms. Speed and efficiency are paramount. I had to learn how to work quickly and socialize at the same time.
Farming is tedious. Farmhands do the same movement over and over again for hours. A normal day could comprise of harvesting and bunching kale from 7:00 till 12:00, an hour lunch break, and planting tomatoes from 1:00-6:00. What can at first glance appear to be a small inefficiency doing these tasks can over those several hours result in a serious setback for the entire operation. The crew must then work later to accomplish everything. It leads to burnout.
A good farmer will teach his or her farmhands how to work as efficiently as possible with each seemingly insignificant hand movement. I am fortunate to have had mentors who railed this into my head. I recall something that a fellow farmhand jokingly said to me once.
Man, I’m even getting more efficient at putting my socks on!
I’m finding that I need to reapply these principles now that there are two locations. This past week was – well – very difficult and taxing. It also didn’t help that the walk-in freezer at Creekside broke down (again)…had to move a half ton of meat to the chest freezers that I always have on standby for when this happens.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to most efficiently order for two stores and one farmer’s market. Vegetables are the most difficult item to figure out since they are the most perishable. I won’t bore you with the specifics. Just take my word that there is a lot to juggle. The vegetable quality/quantity at the Elkins Park location suffered last week because of all this. I apologize. It’ll get better as I relearn how to put on my socks.
As a first step I’ll be working back at Creekside on Fridays and Brigette will be working at Huntingdon Valley starting this week. At the second location I’m very much enjoying seeing people who used to come to my backyard years ago when I was farming in Huntingdon Valley. And I’m very much enjoying getting to know new people. Your excitement and words of encouragement mean the world to me. I’m grateful. I’m also missing faces at Elkins Park at the same time.
People often ask me if I miss farming. It’s a difficult question to answer. I think that the main thing that I miss about farming is the fellowship that I had with people while doing the tedious tasks that I mentioned above. There is something about doing such tasks alongside others that naturally gives rise to good conversation and light-hearted fun. When I started my own farm it was just me doing tedious tasks alone. It wasn’t the same. In fact it was rather lonely. So it’s not farming I miss as much as it is people. I think that my presence at both locations would lend itself to having comradery with as many of you as I can.